F-16s Over Afghanistan

By Frank Visser

F-16s Over AfghanistanApproximately 18,500 military personnel from thirty-seven countries are stationed in Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF. Their task is to help the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan construct a new democracy by providing Afghans with a safe and secure environment. ISAF, established by the United Nations in December 2001, is under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe based at NATO Joint Force Command headquarters in Brunssum, Netherlands. A variety of air forces operate transport helicopters, cargo planes, and fighters for ISAF. F-16 units from Belgium, Netherlands, and Norway have all played vital roles in this mission.

European F-16s began operating over Afghanistan in October 2002 with the deployment of Dutch F-16s to Manas AB in Kyrgyzstan for Operation Enduring Freedom. The Dutch, Danes, and Norwegians originally sent six planes each for six months. Denmark and Netherlands prolonged their commitment in early 2003, redeploying in October 2003.

The Afghan elections on 9 October 2004 led to a renewed deployment of six Dutch F-16s to Manas. Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16 pilots flew missions during the election period to safeguard ISAF ground personnel before returning to the Netherlands on 19 November

The third, and most recent, European F-16 deployment occurred in 2005. This time, aircraft and personnel were sent to a location inside Afghanistan, Kabul International Airport. Dutch F-16s began operating from Kabul in April 2005. The Belgian Air Force arrived that July, marking the first peacekeeping operation outside of Europe for them. The Expeditionary Air Wing formed by the two air forces is under Dutch command and operates eight F-16s, four Dutch and four Belgian. F-16s and personnel from Norway replaced the Flemish contingent in February 2006. Norway redeployed its F-16s redeployed in May.

The RNLAF plans to redeploy its F-16s farther south to Kandahar at the end of 2006 as ISAF activities extend to this region of Afghanistan. These aircraft will support a new mission of 1,400 Dutch ISAF soldiers for two years in the province of
Uruzgan beginning in August 2006. The total commitment of RNLAF F-16s has been increased to eight aircraft. “Creating a democracy takes a lot of time,” says former RNLAF Deputy Commander Maj. Gen. Jaap S. Willemse. “We have
to be patient, otherwise everything we’ve done will have been to no purpose at all.”

F-16s Over Afghanistan

Team Kabul
The detachment at Kabul International Airport consists of some 170 military personnel. The pilots come from various F-16 squadrons and are exchanged every five weeks. Here the Netherlands team of the fifth detachment celebrates completion of 400 flight hours in April 2006. The milestone was reached in three months. In early September, the F-16 detachment at Kabul has flown more than 2,500 missions, accounting for more than 8,200 flying hours.

Night Operations
Experienced pilots aided by night vision goggles carry out their landings entirely in the dark, a procedure never used in Europe. Pilots less experienced with NVGs switch on their landing lights just before touchdown.

F-16s Over Afghanistan
F-16s Over Afghanistan

Capability Improvements
Dutch F-16s are equipped with the Photo Reconnaissance Intelligence Strike Module, called PRISM. This system converts the images derived from the targeting pod into transmittable digital photos. A chosen target can be verified by ground personnel in real time. The F-16 pilot identifies a target, creates a PRISM photo, and then sends it back to the forward air controller or to headquarters. The FAC or headquarters checks whether the pilot has indeed determined the right target and, if so, confirms it for the pilot.

Each F-16 is equipped with two GBU-12 500-pound laser guided bombs, 510 rounds of 20 mm ammunition, two AIM-9L Sidewinder missiles, a laser targeting pod, and a pair of underwing fuel tanks. Norwegian F-16s are equipped with the Lockheed Martin Sniper XR Pantera targeting system. RNLAF F-16s fly from Kabul with the Medium Altitude Reconnaissance System, also called the MARS pod.

F-16s Over Afghanistan
F-16s Over Afghanistan

Signing Off

The fifth detachment commander of the Expeditionary Air Wing at Kabul, Lt. Col. Jos Leenders, signs off on his paperwork before launching on a combat air patrol mission over Afghanistan. Clearly visible is the green patch of the International Security Force.

Landings And Takeoffs
Dutch and Norwegian F-16s land using their drag chutes. To avoid possible shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile attacks by hostile forces at takeoff, the F-16s depart the area at high speed and low altitude.

F-16s Over Afghanistan
F-16s Over Afghanistan

Quick Reaction Alert
European personnel deployed to Kabul maintain a quick reaction alert force with two F-16s around the clock. These aircraft must get airborne within fifteen minutes, depending on the political or military circumstances in the country. The deployed air forces rotate this responsibility on a weekly basis.

Commanders Walk
Lt. Col. Wido van der Mast (left) and Lt. Col. Peter Tankink set out for a night mission over Afghanistan. Van der Mast is the fourth detachment commander; Tankink is the third detachment commander, with Kabul his fifth international assignment with the F-16.

F-16s Over Afghanistan
F-16s Over Afghanistan

According to Lt. Col. Jos Leenders, the reliability of the F-16s has been excellent during this deployment. “Despite the sand and the dust,” he says, “the operational status of the F-16 is more than ninety-five percent with no problems occurring worth mentioning.”

Frank Visser is an aviation photojournalist based in the Netherlands. Article courtesy of Code One Magazine.